Durham Planning Committee voted unanimously today to support the demolition of St Anne’s School, next to the cricket ground in Bishop Auckland. The scheme involves 18 new houses on the site. Prism Planning led the team that were behind the scheme which was described as a bitter-sweet moment by a member of the committee. Bitter because the town was losing an old building which had been part of the town heritage for many years but sweet because it was going to be replaced by a new set of quality buildings made from materials salvaged from the old structure.
The owner had bought the buildings after they were severely damaged by an arson attack. He wanted to convert the existing structure but this proved to be financially un-viable. The scheme approved had been carefully worked up by Prism and the design team over many months of close partnership working with the Council. It was supported by the local councillors, the Town Council and the local Cricket Club who abut the site.
It’s not very often that a planning committee commend you for a scheme that involves losing an old building in a Conservation Area but the fact that they did is testament to all of the hard work we put into the proving it was the only way forward, as well as having an excellent scheme to go back on the site.
Work can now start on relocating bats from the site, subject to the separate go-ahead from Natural England.
I’ve been back from planning committee for a few days now and am still reeling from the decision to refuse planning permission. Apparently the fact that no technical objections exist, the site is allocated for housing and the scheme provides for much needed affordable housing doesn’t really count for much when the local community don’t want it on their doorstep. The quality of the debate wasn’t the greatest I have seen although it was most spirited. However the committee thought it was high time they set aside all of these allocations that keep constraining their decision making! So much for the comfort of a plan led system. It remains to be seen whether the Inspectorate will remedy the situation and overule the local planning authority but you will be unsurprised to know that the appeal is ongoing.
We are running up to the demise of our RDA’s in just a few weeks time and one of the last grants they will issue in the North East has been awarded to a major manufacturer we are representing. The proposals need to be rushed through as quickly as the system allows so that a start can be made on site before the end of the year: No start = no grant and the loss of the inward investment to another part of the European Union.
An SCI event has been undertaken with overwhelming community support and the planning officer has also been broadly supportive, noting that the site is allocated for industry in the Local Plan. Everything seems to be going in the right direction and even the Highways Agency are being supportive -all that is apart from the possibility of newts getting onto the site.
A formal objection has been received from our national ecological team on the basis that we might have newts present and need to survey for their presence. There are newts in the area so there is a kernel of legitimacey to their objection. But the catch 22 to the situation is that we can’t survey for the newts until the weather warms the land in April/May, by which time the opportunity to attract the grant and the business it supports will be gone. Two impartial sets of ecologist have looked at the site and pointed out that any newt on the site would have had to cross a busy main road to get there and would probably not have the best of genetic material to extend the newt gene pool. However its a classic dilema to the LPA as to whether they go for the certainty of securing inward investment or the possibility, however unlikely, of a protected species being present.
I’ve blogged before about the pre-eminence we give to protected species and I’m in danger of apearing like the dodgy developer on Corrie who persuaded his bats to leave in a manner not approved by Natural England. I’m not really authoring a book with Gordon Ramsey on 101 ways to cook newts but have to admit that it is becoming increasingly challenging getting the balance right between reconciling new forms of development and investment with the ecological issues. By way of example; we recently had a decision from a planning authority that prevented us from working on the site between November and April because of the possibility of bats being present. Subsequently they then went on to restrict work in the summer between May and September because of the possibility of swallows being present. Not too many weeks of available construction time in that permission yet the planner’s couldn’t see anything wrong with their decision.
Rather than wasting time trying to get Localism to work in a positive manner, I would rather the boffins put some serious effort into sensible guidance on how we can more properly consider the integration of development with the protection of any said species. At the moment we have a very blunt and unwieldy system that gives far greater weight into the possibility of protected species being present than it does job creation and inward investment.
Now, who is for pickled newts on toast…?
This months blog takes the form of a self confessed rant and allows me to blow off steam about one of the most frustrating aspects of planning –protected species.
We all accept that planning proposals can give rise to a wide range of impacts and that some impacts can be more significant than others. Proposals that impact upon a protected species (bat, badger newt etc) clearly fall into this category and rightly require very careful consideration. This has been the case for some time now and as developers agents we are used to procuring Phase 1 habitat surveys and breathing a huge sigh of relief when no bats or newts show up.
However bats aren’t as rare as perhaps we might expect and crop up frequently when dealing with buildings that have been up for a few years. Its fairly routine to find them associated with conversion schemes and to have to present detailed reports on their significance and how the development will work around them. I’ve recently been dealing with the conversion of some older buildings in which bats were found and the ecologists presented a detailed report on their numbers and significance. They provided a whole suit of mitigation measures including temporary bat boxes, and a bat loft to be built into the development proper as a permanent habitat. The roof on the building which gave the bats shelter was slowly being weathered away and the bats would soon lose their habitat through natural forces. The adjacent highway wasn’t so clever in high winds either with loose slates gusting down. Permission was initially refused on grounds that were nothing to do with bats and an appeal ensued. The inspector visited the site and looked at all of the bat issues. He gave consent, requiring the mitigation in the report to be implemented through a linking condition.
Now we get to the fun and games –despite having the permission granted at appeal, a European Protected Species Licence (EPSL) is required to implement the permission. The procedures for applying for this are set out in documentation provided by Natural England (NA). For anyone who has struggled with a new One App form, mastered it and thought themselves competent at form filling –think again. THE EPSL forms make planning forms seem like a ‘walk in the park’ and must be the most bureaucratic set of documentation ever to emerge from a quango. Seemingly the grant of planning permission is almost irrelevant in the process and the forms require a great deal of information on the need for the development and the benefit to society in undertaking the scheme. Referring back to the quasi judicial process of the appeal is evidently not sufficiently robust. One is left with the distinct impression that NA have determined their own parallel and far more stringent alternative to the planning system and its devised its own rules and interpretations on whether it is prepared to allow development. I know as an organisation they have often struggled to comment on applications within meaningful timescales –it seems they no longer have to worry about doing so, having devised their own alternative control system.
OK, I admit to being a little prejudiced about the new application system but I can’t help wondering whether the approach we now face is so overly complex, time consuming and anti-democratic that in the long run protected species will suffer through a system of controls that cannot be made to work in practice? The planning system has done an effective job of providing checks and balances for new development and has a long pedigree to prove it. To replace it, in practical terms if not in law, with the present cumbersome beast is, in my view a retrograde step. I think that those in charge of the new EPSL system should be encouraged to look again at their creation and consider whether it is really fit for purpose.